Note: For reasons explained below, particular caution must be used when evaluating this symbol.
The “okay” hand gesture—in which the thumb and index finger touch while the other fingers of the hand are held outstretched—is an obvious and ancient gesture that has arisen in many cultures over the years with different meanings.
Today, in a usage that dates to at least as early as 17th century Great Britain, it most commonly signals understanding, consent, approval or well-being. Since the early 1800s, the gesture increasingly became associated with the word “okay” and its abbreviation “ok.” The gesture is also important in the Hindu and Buddhist worlds, as well as in yoga, where it is known as mudra or vitarka mudra, a symbol of inner perfection. The "okay" hand gesture also forms part of the basis for a number of words or concepts in American Sign Language. It appears in many other contexts as well.
Use of the okay symbol in most contexts is entirely innocuous and harmless.
In 2017, the “okay” hand gesture acquired a new and different significance thanks to a hoax by members of the website 4chan to falsely promote the gesture as a hate symbol, claiming that the gesture represented the letters “wp,” for “white power.” The “okay” gesture hoax was merely the latest in a series of similar 4chan hoaxes using various innocuous symbols; in each case, the hoaxers hoped that the media and liberals would overreact by condemning a common image as white supremacist.
In the case of the “okay” gesture, the hoax was so successful the symbol became a popular trolling tactic on the part of right-leaning individuals, who would often post photos to social media of themselves posing while making the “okay” gesture.
Ironically, some white supremacists themselves soon also participated in such trolling tactics, lending an actual credence to those who labeled the trolling gesture as racist in nature. By 2019, at least some white supremacists seem to have abandoned the ironic or satiric intent behind the original trolling campaign and used the symbol as a sincere expression of white supremacy, such as when Australian white supremacist Brenton Tarrant flashed the symbol during a March 2019 courtroom appearance soon after his arrest for allegedly murdering 50 people in a shooting spree at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.
The overwhelming usage of the “okay” hand gesture today is still its traditional purpose as a gesture signifying assent or approval. As a result, someone who uses the symbol cannot be assumed to be using the symbol in either a trolling or, especially, white supremacist context unless other contextual evidence exists to support the contention. Since 2017, many people have been falsely accused of being racist or white supremacist for using the “okay” gesture in its traditional and innocuous sense.
Other, similar-seeming hand gestures have also been mistakenly assumed to have white supremacist connotations as a result of the “okay” hoax. One of these is the so-called “Circle Game,” in which people attempt to trick each other into looking at an okay-like hand gesture made somewhere below the waist. Another is the hand sign of the Three Percenter movement, a wing of the anti-government extremist militia movement. Three Percenters, who are right-wing extremists but are not typically white supremacists, often make a hand gesture to symbolize their movement that uses the outstretched middle, ring, and pinky fingers to represent a Roman numeral “3.” This gesture, from certain angles, can often resemble an “okay” hand gesture and has been misinterpreted by some as a white supremacist symbol.
Because of the traditional meaning of the “okay” hand gesture, as well as other usages unrelated to white supremacy, particular care must be taken not to jump to conclusions about the intent behind someone who has used the gesture.